[Enquirer] Sounding the Shofar: Uniting to Tackle our Mental Health Crisis

By Danielle V. Minson, CEO, Jewish Federation of Cincinnati

Originally published in the Cincinnati Enquirer, September 15, 2023.

As Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, approaches, the sound of the shofar − a ram's horn traditionally blown throughout the month, culminating on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement − serves as a poignant note of awareness and remembrance. Maimonides once referred to this sound as a "wake-up call," and for me, with September coinciding with National Suicide Prevention Month, it serves as a wake-up call to the growing mental health challenges facing our youth.

This is deeply personal to me. Nearly 23 years ago, I lost my brother Jonas to depression. The fact that the Jewish New Year aligns with National Suicide Prevention Month intensifies the sense of obligation I feel to make a difference. 

As a society, we must wake up to the increasing number of young people grappling with feelings of despair. A recent CDC report, published in February 2023, underscores the severity of the situation. From 2007 to 2011, suicide rates among people, ages 10-24, surged from 6.8 to 11 deaths per 100,000. These numbers are not mere statistics; they represent the cries for help from real young people − our children and our grandchildren. 

Addressing anxiety, depression and suicide in our young people requires a comprehensive and coordinated approach. 

Recognizing the urgency of this issue, the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati provided crucial funding, in 2021, for a pilot program aimed at addressing mental health challenges among Jewish young people. The seeds of this initial phase have since grown into a more substantial investment by the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati. Through this collaborative funding, we've made substantial progress in informing, educating and providing essential mental health support to our youth. 

With the funding in hand, and with increased demand evident to all, our partner agency, Jewish Family Service of Cincinnati, launched and then soon expanded mental health services for youth. This expansion includes a dedicated team of six, highly skilled therapists who focus on education, prevention, and counseling. JFS has also taken proactive measure of embedding therapists within various organizations, such as Jewish day schools, Jewish organizations on college campuses (Hillels), and other Jewish programming for teens and young adults. This forward-thinking approach has already begun to be used as a model by other Jewish communities. 

Our commitment to addressing this issue extends beyond our local Jewish community.

We partnered with the Jewish Federations of North America to create the "BeWell Resiliency Roundtable." This initiative unites community leaders, educators and clinical experts from Jewish communities across the country, facilitating the exchange of best practices and collaborative problem-solving. Additionally, we are in the early stages of collaborating with regional organizations like Interact for Health and Bi3 to develop a comprehensive strategy benefiting Cincinnati's broader community. 

The Jewish community’s commitment to meaningful, long-lasting change is real. I believe our community has woken up. But our work is not done, it is just beginning. Like my brother, many children, teens and young adults are in pain − and urgently need our help. We don't have all the answers, and we need more partners and allies to build awareness and networks of support to combat this society-wide, death-dealing horror.

As we embrace the Jewish New Year, and honor National Suicide Prevention Month, let the trumpeting of the shofar move each of us, and the organizations we support or work for, to change what must be changed. The shocking increase in youth suicide tells us this is not an individual issue, even though it is often experienced as such. This is a societal issue and requires society itself to change.

The lives of those like my brother are at stake.


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